Paperback review: Silent House, By Orhan Pamuk (Trs Robert Finn)

Style and substance from a good listener

Whatever you think of the Nobel Prize in Literature and its obscure selection process – I'm inclined to agree with Paul Theroux, who once described it as "little more than the Swedish lottery" – it has its benefits. It seems unlikely, for instance, that this quietly involving novel from 2006 laureate Orhan Pamuk would have appeared in English had he not been accorded the Nobel imprimatur.

First published in 1983 (when Pamuk was just 30), Silent House tells of a family gathering at a decrepit mansion in a village near Istanbul. The action unfolds via a series of monologues delivered by the members of this somewhat dysfunctional clan: Fatma, an elderly widow; Recep, her late husband's illegitimate son; Fatma's grandchildren; and Recep's volatile nephew, Hasan.

Pamuk nimbly shifts between these characters as they muse on the subjects close to them – from the peculiarities of Turkish history to the disappointments of marriage – demonstrating an early mastery of technique. But Silent House is not merely a stylish literary performance: set in the lead-up to the military coup of 1980, the novel is a deeply serious commentary on Turkish politics.

Pamuk alludes to the social turmoil that enabled the junta's power-grab (Hasan becomes involved with a group of fascist thugs who target his left-leaning cousins). But in dramatising a range of different perspectives, the book stresses the importance of listening to dissenting views, especially when, as in Turkey, democracy is a fragile thing. And, as this book proves, Pamuk, with his ear for the nuances of language and dialogue, was always a fine listener.